Yes, God, Yes is, by far, the sweetest, gentlest, sincerest—and funniest—movie about sexual awakening (and masturbation!) that I can remember watching. Because I have to rewatch things so many times to get screenshots and quotes, I often worry that the Netflix algorithm will mistakenly think I’m obsessed with a movie that I hate. But in this case the Netflix algorithm is absolutely right to assume I deeply enjoyed this movie.
Obviously, the movie—which is closely based on the real-life experiences of writer/director Karen Maine while growing up in Iowa—is really about a whole lot more than just sex and masturbation. (Side note: she also created Obvious Child, a movie I think I enjoyed as much as the Catholic News Service hated.) Yes, God, Yes is a coming-of-age story set in the early 2000s somewhere in the middle of the United States where Alice (Natalia Dyer) is a teenager at a very conservative Catholic high school. The walls are lined with pro-abstinence and anti-abortion posters, and the exasperated Mrs.Veda (Donna Lynne Champlin, who is always wonderful), armed with a ruler and a book of tickets, stalks the halls, looking for serious infractions like empty belt loops or skirts that fall higher than two inches above the knee. Hey, you know a really good way to avoid the need for an administrator armed with a ruler? Let girls wear pants and stop buying into sexist ideas! Okay, that was two ways to solve the problem, but not buying into sexist ideas is really an all purpose problem-solver. (Also, if you’re at all tempted to compare policing naked belt loops with sexualizing and policing young women’s bodies, then be forewarned that you’re likely going to strongly dislike this movie.)
We first meet Alice on her way to class when she’s nervously tucking in her shirt and tugging at her skirt in the hopes of avoiding Mrs. Veda’s disciplinary measures. In her morality class, taught by Father Murphy (Timothy Simmons), she learns that sex is only for procreation between a married couple, and also that, sexually speaking, men are like microwave ovens while women need more time to preheat. It’s an example so ludicrous and nonsensical that I can only assume that it’s lifted directly from Maine’s life. They also learn that masturbation is a sin because it doesn’t result in a child. Alice’s status-seeking best friend Laura (Francesca Reale) assures her that rewinding Titanic to watch the scene when Leo and Kate make out in the car over and over is also a definite sin that will send her straight to burn in hell. I’m sorry, imagine (or maybe you don’t have to) feeling terrified of eternal damnation because you find it sexy when two beautiful people make out?!?
Anyway, all of the morality classes in all the world won’t stop teenagers from being jerks to each other or being obsessed with sex, so it’s unsurprising when a rumor spreads that Alice hooked up with a boy named Wade during Laura’s party. While Wade goes about his life as usual (of-fucking-course he does), it seems the entire school is either giggling at Alice or judging her harshly for not treating her body like a “gift from God,” which is more commonly known as slut shaming. (See above about not buying into sexist ideas being a blanket solution to most problems.) Despite her lustful Titantic thoughts (and likely due to too much time spent in morality class), Alice is completely naive when it comes to sex. When kids accuse her of “tossing Wade’s salad” she is entirely befuddled. “I mean, I’ve never even heard of dressing someone’s salad,” she insists, while, at least at first, still seeming somewhat excited that she and Wade have been lumped into the same sexual rumor.
At home, she gets lured into sexting with an older man in an AOL chat where she tries to figure out how to masturbate. Alice is so clueless that in an attempt to respond to his dirty talk she writes, “I take off your boxers. You’re wet, too.” It is literally the gentlest, realest raunchy humor ever. (Though the idea of a teenager blithely sharing a sexual experience online with a stranger shoots absolute terror through my veins.)
The guilt Alice feels about her secret burgeoning sexual desires, along with a healthy dose of peer pressure, pushes her to join her classmates at a secretive retreat sponsored by the school. Once there, kids are coaxed to publicly share their traumas with the group by overly ebullient counselors. (This too is based on a real place.) Their reward, they’re told, will be a special necklace that will mark them as members of the secret society and a stronger relationship with Jesus. What they all really lack, though, is connection to and honesty with each other. (And some actual sex education.)
Part of the beauty of the movie is its focus on the small details. Much time is spent narrowly focused on Alice’s facial expressions as she vacillates between exploring and suppressing her sexual urges. Thankfully for everyone, Natalia Dyer has the depth and range to make this work, because otherwise it would be a terrible choice. A small moment I absolutely love is when Alice first arrives at the retreat and catches sight of Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), one of the counselors, and the camera focuses lovingly on his forearms while Alice imagines herself running her fingers through the hair. It’s such a pure, real moment of longing to which all of us who admire and appreciate male forearms can probably relate.
In another scene, when Chris comforts a crying girl, we see Alice’s face, half hidden by their hugging bodies, as a look of envious disgust moves across it. When the creepy online guy requests a photo of Alice, we watch her find a photo, carefully fold it in half, scan it, copy it, and finally paste it into AOL messenger. The time and detail given to these small moments is so humanizing. The humor, too, is in the details. Like Alice’s naive responses, or Father Murphy’s song choice at the retreat, or Chris’s abject terror at Alice’s advances. Or—another favorite of mine—when a counselor explains the relationship between S’mores and deadly sins. Its understated nature only makes it more poignant and effective in exposing hypocrisy without using meanness or anger. Gradually, Alice realizes that everyone is hiding secrets, and the knowledge is part of what helps to free her from her guilt and shame. Driven along by these smaller moments and interactions, the movie moves at an almost laconic pace, which, with a running time of only 74 minutes, it can afford to do.
Christ on a cracker, it’s so frustrating that the things I want most to tell you about Yes, God, Yes are also the things that would absolutely spoil the movie for you, which I swear on the Urban Dictionary I will not do! But I will say this, if at first you feel like the gentle, slow pace isn’t going anywhere, trust me when I say that you’re going to want to stick with the movie to see when and where Alice has a life-changing revelation that leads to her absolution and freedom. (And to find out if she ever learns what tossing someone’s salad actually means.) Long story short, should you watch this movie immediately? Hell yes!